Cracking the code

Learning to write code - even just a bit - will change your view of the digital world and open up your mind to its creative possibilities, Stephen Maher discovers.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Ajax or XML? JQuery ?or W3C? CSS or JS? Bootstrap or Boilerplate? Python or Ruby? Function or var? < or { or even a (?

We may employ many cool developers at MBA who generate some top websites or apps or social/CRM campaigns every day – and I do try (I promise) to understand exactly how they work their magic – but code is not my first language.

In fact, it is not even my second or third language.

The last time I learnt a language, it was more about declensions and umlauts than it was about brackets and indentations.

Yet this language is the world’s matrix – it defines many of today’s communities and how many businesses make money; and it literally defines how my teenage children interact with their friends (and me, sadly).

The Government has just decided that this language is to become part of the national curriculum for children as young as five, after much welcome lobbying from the likes of Ian Livingstone from Eidos Interactive. But many of us who work in this world of creative technology every day do not speak code – even just a little.

I decided to avoid embarrassing our developers by asking them to teach me and, instead, follow in the footsteps of Lily Cole, the Duke of York, the editor-in-chief of Campaign and my creative partner Graham Kerr and sign up for the Code in a Day course with Decoded.

And I am glad I did. I would not say that I have truly learnt to "code in a day" or that I have discovered new concepts or processes but, if you are time-poor or just suffer from mild attention deficit disorder like me and want to find out first-hand and fast what it is really like to speak this language, I would highly recommend it.

Many of us who work in creative technology do not speak code - even just a little

During my day, I built a simple, Foursquare-style app, tested it and deployed it – under top professional tuition and with much gentle encouragement (even when you mistake a { for a < for the tenth time).

This all happens in an appropriately minimalist Clerkenwell penthouse (that must surely be owned by Jason Statham), interspersed with a potted history of digital, lots of healthy brain-food and a summary booklet of the day’s lessons complete with a helpful jargon-buster.

So what did I learn?

Everyone benefits from learning to write some code

This includes schoolkids and big kids – whichever course you decide on. On my day, there was a director from the BBC, a production director from Cambridge University Press, a gap-year student and two young developers just starting out. But all of us came out more enlightened and, importantly, more comfortable with this vital language that is writing all our futures.

Top developers really are heroes

The day was demystifying and I came away with even more respect and a better appreciation that this sophisticated digital world of clouds and airdrop and robots and artificial intelligence we take for granted is all driven by the delicate human process of someone committing this language to a screen of some kind, somewhere, every day.

Code is left and right brain

Code is logic, unambiguous, methodical – if this, then that. It is the enemy of random and error. You become a living application programming interface (all very daunting to a maths O level and arts student like me). But it is truly creative, problem-solving and the heir to Alan Turing and his Enigma codebreaking. It is also organic, constantly morphing to serve new human demands.

Code is social-ist

It makes you feel good about the world. I know there are real issues around intellectual property and developers getting fairly paid for the great work they do but, while the world that Marx and Engels wished for may not have realised itself in Russia in 1917, it seems to have realised itself in the global developer community of 2014. As we cut and pasted code for our apps from the top-scoring developers around the world, it made you feel that Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s campaign to keep the web free and open to all – and, with it, the world’s newest language – would be won.

So my thoughts are that if you cannot already code, learn to write some code. If you have little time, learn some in a day. And if you have no time for that, respect your developers even more and take their next pay rises more seriously. And, just maybe, some of the developers in our place will take me a little more seriously now (probably not).

Stephen Maher is the chief executive of MBA and chairman of The Marketing Society

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